Surrounded in Manhattan Page 2

We heard a surround-sound demo of SACD vs DVD-Audio using the same Telarc recording: Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, with my former music prof at Brown, Erich Kunzel, conducting the Cincinnati Pops. This is from the new 1812 album, which is available in three versions: dual-layer SACD (SACD-60541), DVD-Audio (DVD-70541), and perfect sound forever (CD-80541).

Overall, I didn't care for the sound. I didn't blame the speakers, because I've heard the Maggie 20.1s sound very good indeed in a two-channel setup. Nor did I fault the recording—it sounded swell when I took it home (regular CD, of course) and played it in two-channel. (Kunzel's music classes were terrific, too.) I did think the demonstration room was probably too small for all those speakers—too much firepower, especially for the 1812.

Then, the—ahem—demo. Woods played the same track in SACD surround and DVD-Audio. In fact, I think he played each track twice in each format. I preferred the SACD version. I thought it had more immediacy, more life, more dynamics. The DVD-A version, by contrast, sounded more processed, more compressed, less involving.

One recording, one demo. Who knows? Maybe the mastering or the playback equipment tilted things in SACD's favor. But I was not impressed at all by DVD-A.

"What's that, Bob?" I asked as I pointed to a small television screen, knowing full damned well what it was.

"It's the monitor for DVD-A."

"Heh-heh." I laughed my evil laugh so everyone could hear.

Apparently, the only way to be sure of how you're playing some DVD-Audio discs is to consult the menu, which requires a screen or monitor. I love to see people shoot themselves in the foot!

"Real convenient for the car," I said.

Woods just smiled. The guy does keep his cool.

Woods also demonstrated two-channel SACD vs SACD surround sound.

Yowsuh! I told you SACD would turn into a surround-sound medium. But is the format being introduced two channels at a time? If you were an early adopter and bought a two-channel SACD player, do you feel a little bit...well, had?

When Woods switched from two-channel SACD to surround-sound SACD, my initial reaction was, "Wow, there's more sound." And yes, I perhaps did hear more of the hall—more atmosphere. But I was bothered by something. In the words of Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again.

I remembered quadraphonic sound, which I, adopted 25 years before and dismantled four years later. Quadraphony, too, could sound impressive—you know, like a real expensive but real lousy high-end two-channel hi-fi system. But after four years I was glad to be rid of it, and now I don't want it back, even if the technology and its name have changed.

What bothered me, then as now, was that I felt, well, surrounded—that is to say, more immersed in the music than I really cared to be, at home, on a regular basis, listening hour after hour. I want a certain, comfortable distance between me and the music. I want the sound there, in the front of the room—not here, all around me.

Surround sound is just too much. It takes too much control of me. I want the "distancing" of two-channel. If I want surround, I'll go to the concert hall. This is why I was relieved to rid myself of quadraphony a quarter century ago.

I also don't want surround-sound taking control of our living room—or my listening room, which doubles as a library. We have furniture, art objects. To me, a surround-sound room is rather like a utility room or a toilet, with lots of plumbing. I would sooner install a urinal in our living room than a set of rear speakers.

But Telarc, it seems, is on the surround-sound "bandwagon." (Every time I hear that word, as I did several times at the Show, I want to pry off a wheel!) They've even got a spiffy new surround logo, so you know where they're going.

It's a good bet that other SACD-issuing labels will follow. No one wants to be left behind, after all. Meanwhile, DVD-Audio was launched (more of a lurch than a launch) as a surround-sound medium in the first place. At least, we won't get DVD-A in installments of two channels at a time.

I must admit, though, that Tchaikovsky's Overture 1812 was a hoot in SACD surround. With cannons firing all around, I could almost smell the smoke. But how many times would you want to listen? Listening to that recording was like being in combat. And was Telarc firing those cannons at Napoleon or at two-channel audiophiles? (Or was Woods wishing that the cannons were aimed at me?)

There was plenty of controversy swirling about.